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Innovation Scholars Program

Collaboratively created between Michigan State University (MSU) and Malawi's Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), the Innovation Scholars Program is a 15-month capacity-building program offered by MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI).

Serving LUANAR faculty and administrators—collectively called scholars— the ISP supports LUANAR’s goal to equip graduates with the skills and mindset to solve the region’s development challenges. Guided by the idea that innovation is a process that can be learned, the first cohort of scholars entered the program in June of 2016.

Innovation is a process, not a product

Initial Planning & Co-Design

Over the course of multiple working meetings, the Innovation Scholars Program was collaboratively created between MSU and LUANAR,  

GCFSI listened to what the university community needed, and a strong relationship was established. Together, the group discussed the program application and selection process, overall curriculum content, and scholar expectations.

As a result of the co-design process it was decided to add an academic leadership track to develop the type of institutional environment that supports a culture of innovation.

LUANAR launches Innovation Scholars Program, LUANAR News, July 2016

Invitation to explore your innovative side, become an innovative scholar, LUANAR News, April 2016

Dual Tracks: Faculty & Leadership

The Innovation Scholars Program has two tracks tailored to the differing needs of faculty members and administrative leaders. In this way, the ISP takes a holistic approach to instituting gradual change within the university. Members of both tracks engage with leaders in the private and public sectors during public forums, while visiting Kenya’s innovation ecosystem on a three-day Nairobi Excursion, and when working with their design team.

Faculty members learn techniques for bringing innovative thinking into the classroom and academic research. Individual scholars on the faculty track also propose a research project aimed at solving a specific food security challenge, and form a design team composed of internal and external partners. This track is designed to build the faculty's capacity to implement new and innovative processes for student learning; design, develop and conduct high quality research that addresses current food system challenges; improve engagement with relevant stakeholders; and communicate the impact of their scientific research and innovation to diverse audiences.

Administrative leaders, including, deans, department heads, and the university registrar, develop ways to dismantle institutional constraints that inhibit innovation, and discuss new approaches to faculty assessment and other procedures. The academic leadership track is designed to develop innovative academic leaders at LUANAR and beyond. Leaders focus on understanding what innovation would look like in their institution; identifying institutional barriers to innovation in teaching, research, and outreach; articulating the gaps in leadership development that contribute to these barriers; and defining the qualities, knowledge, and skills needed to promote a culture of innovation within their institutions.

Practicing Design Thinking

Facilitated by experts specializing in higher education and adult learning, the Innovation Scholars Program teaches and models the principles of design thinking and systems thinking that enable the LUANAR community to consider problems from new angles, recognize potentially inaccurate assumptions, and finally, break ground on new solutions.

Faculty members practice design thinking while working on research teams aimed at food security solutions. As they work with others and receive feedback on their innovation plans, scholars practice refining their proposed solution. Traversing through the non-linear steps of empathy, problem definition, idea generation, prototyping and testing, faculty develop an understanding of how design thinking leads to innovation in academic research.

Similarly, administrators practice design thinking as they collectively reflect and rethink university organization, procedures, assessments, and other important factors. Leaders use design thinking to develop real-world solutions for innovation that are targeted to their university. Faculty and leaders work together to implement changes in the classroom and elsewhere within the institution.


Design Thinking, June 2016

In the first Innovation Scholars Program workshop, scholars were introduced to design thinking. Facilitators discussed the modeling principles and content of human-centered design for innovation in African food systems. Then, scholars were tasked with creating research design teams to facilitate the re-imagining of the academic research process. The design teams provide an opportunity for scholars to practice implementing new concepts and work as interdisciplinary teams focused on food system solutions for Malawi.

Community Engagement, September 2016

During the Community Engagement Workshop, scholars' design teams utilized the design thinking to develop guiding principles for acquiring and incorporating project feedback. Scholars revised their project action plans and budgets, and developed a deeper understanding of what's necessary to successfully implement a project that engages the local community.  Throughout the workshop sessions, facilitators utilized design thinking processes to facilitate learning, assessment, and action planning. A community forum was also held at LUANAR. The event brought together external stakeholders including government officials, producers, and alumni to discuss expectations and possibilities of collaboration.

Community-focused workshop brings together stakeholders, Nov. 2016

Teaching & Learning, December 2016

During the Teaching and Learning Workshop facilitators further emphasized to scholars the principles, techniques and methods of design thinking and systems thinking. To help bridge the gap between research and application, an interactive forum was held for stakeholders and the university community to discuss the need for innovation and partnerships. Individuals from the private sector, including a LUANAR graduate who now works in the landscape architecture business, were in attendance with the director of national education assessment for Malawi; the director of assessment at LUANAR; the president of the student body; and officials from the government, including a member of Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Innovation through education, GCFSI Wire, Jan. 2017

Leadership Development, June 2017

The Leadership Development Workshop was designed specifically to meet the needs of the InnoSave 

vation Scholars Program leadership track. Though not initially planned, scholars and facilitators agreed that an intensive workshop focused on organizational change would be beneficial. Facilitators from MSU and Wageningen University & Research discussed principles and practices of strategic change. Through the workshop, members of the leadership track planned the next steps they would take to advance their group project -- the creation of a LUANAR-specific leadership development pilot.

Communicating for Impact, August 2017

During the Communicating for Impact Workshop, scholars practiced research storytelling-- explaining their research findings in a compelling manner suitable for the general public. Learning to discuss their community research projects concisely and in ways that people relate to, is crucial if the scholars' research is to have ongoing impact in the community. The gap between scholarly research and farmers or policy makers is an area of great concern and was addressed during a public forum involving various sides of the story. Because the ISP workshop ran parallel to another workshop on LUANAR's campus, which involved journalists from the New Alliance Policy Acceleration Support (NAPAS), journalists and reporters managed to get face-to-face to talk about the challenges they each face. After hours of training, practice, and conversation select researchers were interviewed by local reporters, who followed up with articles in various Malawian news outlets (see below).

Workshop-related media coverage:

Media Urged To Interact With Agricultural Scientists, Progress Malawi, Aug. 2017

Media is crucial in communicating agricultural science for impact, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), Aug. 2017

LUANAR moves in to save chambo, The Nation, Aug. 2017

LUANAR asked to embrace media to disseminate innovations that address food security, The Maravi Post, Aug. 2017

Media role in agricultural development critical, The Nation, Aug. 2017

NAPAS for increased “agricultural science” reporting, The Nation, Aug. 2017

IITA warns of aflatoxin, offering free testing, The Nation, Aug. 2017

Government intensifies studies to control fall armyworm, Malawi News Agency, Aug. 2017

About the workshop:

Innovation Scholars drilled in communicating science for impact, LUANAR News, Aug. 2017

Innovations through Conversations, MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, Sept. 2017

Media Workshop: Communicating agricultural science for impact, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Aug. 2017

Bridging food scientists and journalists with communications training in the public interest, The Food Fix, Aug. 2017


Celebrate Innovation Symposium, October 2017

GCFSI was invited to present with LUANAR during the activities leading up to the 13th Annual General Meeting of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), a network of over 60 African institutions of higher education. The session focused on transformative leadership and was in large part led by three recently graduated Innovation Scholars from LUANAR. By facilitating a mini design thinking workshop, the scholars had their first opportunity to teach others about what they had  learned over the last 15 months. Speaking to an audience of roughly 100 deans and heads of departments from various African universities, the scholar-facilitators challenged them to consider how they could run a meeting that leads to transformative change. The scholars walked the participants through the stages of design thinking, including empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototyping and testing. 

MSU and LUANAR Showcase the Innovation Scholars Program, Oct. 2017

Learning Excursion

Buzzing around in a coffee-colored bus in March of 2017, the Innovation Scholars traveled to a variety innovation sites during a three day learning excursion in Nairobi, Kenya. LUANAR faculty and administrators visited student hubs, start-up launch pads, and research-for-development institutions.

Sites included the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Catholic University of Eastern Africa, United States International University, International Potato Center, International Livestock Research Institute, and local tech incubators Nailab and iHub.

Part of the year-long capacity building program, the field study allowed Scholars to see innovation systems in action, gain understanding of how the centers functioned, and brainstorm how they might incorporate novel ideas into the context of LUANAR and the broader Malawian food system.

Careers, love potions, and grilled meat: Adventures in structures and functions, a dispatch from Nairobi, MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, May 2017

MSU-LUANAR Innovation Scholars visit Kenya on Study Tour, LUANAR News, April 2017 

Field study inspires Malawian faculty, administrators, GCFSI Wire, Spring 2017

Assessment & Iteration

Iterative and ongoing assessment has helped to identify when and how scholars take hold of the concepts of design thinking.

Across the project, quantitative program and financial data are collected about each research and leadership project. Just as important, program facilitators seek to understand why individuals make changes along the way. Through the scholars' reflective essays, facilitators see how each scholar makes improvements to their projects. Qualitative interviews and workshop outputs are also collected to help illustrate how each participant has understood and embodied the learning through this program.

Artifacts from each interaction are considered in planning the next interaction, creating a learning journey that is aligned to the implementation framework and simultaneously informed by participants and partners.


scholars on the wall on excurison.jpgScholars listen at an innovation site visit in Nairobi, Kenya.  

The Innovation Scholars Program also serves as a catalyst to advance the overarching objective of LUANAR's Innovation Hub, which is to support food system innovation that bolsters food security, and develop the current and next generation of entrepreneurial scientists in Malawi and the region.

The Innovation Scholars Program is modeled after MSU’s Academy for Global Engagement--a successful, field-tested faculty development program--yet targeted for innovation and contextual challenges. The core values include the following: participatory, asset-based, learner-centered, contextualized, and evaluative. 

MSU Project Team: Kurt Richter, Bill Heinrich, John Bonnell and John Medendorp

 Innovation Scholars Program Facilitators

ISP Lead Team

Kurt Richter, Deputy Director, GCFSI

John Bonnell, Faculty Track Lead

John Medendorp, Leadership Track Lead

Bill Heinrich, Director of Assessment, MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

LUANAR Lead Team

Professor Emmanuel Kaunda, former LUANAR Deputy Vice Chancellor

Andy Safalaoh, ISP Coordinator for LUANAR

Wageningen University & Research Lead Team

Domenico Dentoni, Organizational Change, WUR

Renate Wesselink, Strategic Change Management, WUR 

Larissa Shnayder, Organizational Change, WUR

Content Experts


David Poulson, MSU College of Communication Arts & Sciences, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism 

Amol Pavangadkar, MSU College of Communication Arts & Sciences, Sandbox Studios

Candice Bailey, The Conversation, Africa

Teaching for Innovation & Nairobi Innovation Ecosystem

Bethwell Owour, Catholic University of Eastern Africa

Community Engagement

Paul Kibwika, Makerere University 




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